Kamila Shamsie with Jeanette Winterson; Martin Harris Centre, 17 October 2017.

People tell you never meet your idols, for fear they don’t live up to your expectations. In my case, watching Kamila Shamsie in conversation with Jeannette Winterson lived up to the admiration I hold for the author.

The evening began with John McAuliffe, Co-Director for the Centre of New Writing, proudly introducing Professor Jeanette Winterson,  Professor of the Centre for New Writing since 2012 and Kamila Shamsie, novelist, columnist and a reviewer. Born in Pakistan, Karachi in 1973 to a family of women writers (her mother is Pakistani critic Muneeza Shamsie and great-aunt author Attia Hosain), Shamsie is the author of six novels, including Kartography (2002) and Burnt Shadows (2009) which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and most recently, Shamsie’s novel Home Fire which was longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2017.

McAuliffe reveals when he arrived in Manchester in 2005, the first course he oversaw was on contemporary literature and the novel he chose to finish with was Shamsie’s Kartography. He admired its wit, serious thinking and tenderness. McAuliffe emphases Shamsie’s success when he called her a prodigy, as Kartography was her third novel she published in her twenties, and happily reports that Shamsie will be joining the University of Manchester Centre for New Writing as a senior lecturer in spring. I squeal with delight, clapping with the audience, knowing I’ll be taught fiction by a prominent writer next semester.

Shamsie begins reading the opening scene from Home Fire. The character Isma, who tries to depart to America, is pulled aside to an interrogation room in Heathrow Airport. As Shamsie reads the narrative, the crowd laughs when the character answers questions on the Great British Bake Off and The Queen (as the character Isma retorts as an Asian, she admired the royals colour palette). After the passage Jeanette Winterson goes straight into the questions.

In a previous interview, Shamsie was posed, in Winterson’s opinion, a rude question concerning if the go-to plot for contemporary writers was themes of radicalisation and terrorism. Winterson goes on to ask for clarification in Shamsie’s answer in the previous interview as her reply was both interesting and contradictory.

On the one hand you said that writing is political and that art should be alongside the side-lines of history, and you also said the writer should write what they like and not be condemned to the hate violence.

Shamsie clarifies her answer by stating she doesn’t want to determine what other fiction writers are doing, she further states she is glad for the variety and breath of different writing as people tell the story they want to tell: “There are times when the world is terrible and you want to read a writer who is speaking about what is urgently terrible and there are other times when the world is terrible and you want to pick up your copy of pride and prejudice for the seventeenth time.” She exemplifies her point when she describes a documentary on the first world war she once saw where she discovered in the trenches the most popular novelist was Jane Austen. Hearing this, the audience laughs. Shamsie continues to unravel her statement for Winterson by referencing her interest in politics and belonging to a nation: “If you have a nation, and in that nation the writers are not speaking to the politics, and they aren’t addressing it, you have to ask what’s going on.” She informs Jeannette of growing up in Pakistan and how literature and politics were intertwined: “Poets in particular were being thrown into prison or going into exile.”

Winterson asks, “Do you think this is a special moment in history where the writers of all kinds in their work need to be looking at what’s happening?” and Shamsie tells her recently in a trip to America, she came across writers who felt the need to look at the nation: “When you feel politics breathing down your neck then it naturally works its ways into your stories.” I watch Kamile Shamsie grow passionate about the topic as she presses her palms together and claps “Politics is right there.” Winterson nods her head and agrees with Shamsie, understanding it’s complicated to address the times we are in.

The conversation shifts to the role of art and writing in relation to history and humanity. When Winterson asks Shamsie if she would firmly stand and say art is in the side-lines of history, Shamsie hesitates. Before she can respond Jeanette draws upon an essay by Adrianne Rich where she talks about ‘art not being the thing that will provide the medicine to the hospital, that will build the schools, but will remind you that life is not designed to be an emergency zone, staggering from crisis to crisis. Art will remind you of our values and will become our shields against these things.’ Kamila agrees with the sentiment and explains she hesitated earlier because she didn’t feel the need to stand up and say it, it’s a self-evident truth. “That’ll do,” concludes Winterson and the audience chuckles at her satisfactory response.

When Winterson dives further into the novel Home Fire by discussing the themes of propaganda used by Islamic State, my interest is piqued. As an avid fan of the book, I was curious as to how Shamsie conducted her research and if she was nervous or feared the dangerous topic. Home Fire follows the stories of two British-Muslim families, one family consists of children of a jihadist father, the other is the first British Muslim home secretary and his son. The narrative unfolds when the both families lives collide. Shamsie reveals the plot required her to think about Islamic State and the propaganda used, and during her research, astonishingly, IS websites wasn’t all about violence. Most surprisingly, it was all about zoos, she informs Jeanette. She reveals IS recruits people through nation building, the promise of a sense of belonging. Furthermore, IS targets things young British-Muslims would like, such as a lack of racism and an end to a stream of questions of “where are you from?”. Shamsie concludes “it’s terrifying, but sophisticated because you can actually look at it and think who would be attracted to this even if they had no desire towards violence.”  Winterson acknowledges Shamsie took a big risk in her exploration of IS. When Jeanette asks if she has received any hostile responses towards the novel Shamsie reveals she hasn’t. In fact, Kamila is almost disappointed by the lack of hostility and the audience laughs at her tone of disbelief.

Winterson discusses the emotional roller-coaster experienced when reading Home Fire as she felt for the characters and struggled with the moral conflicts of the novel; would you send your brother away if he made the mistake of associating himself with IS and desired to return home? Winterson felt sympathy for majority of the characters except the home secretary, while Shamsie was fond of this complicated character. As both Shamsie and Winterson discuss the relationship between writer and character, the audience laughs loudly when Jeanette apologies to Shamsie and still finds the home secretary character “a little shit.” However, she does agree he isn’t one-dimensional. The comedic conversation concerning character continues when Winterson discusses the female character who uses her feminine charm to ensnare the home secretary’s son in an attempt to save her brother. Jeannette (wrongly) states we first meet the character giving a blowjob, much to Shamsie’s horror. The audience laughs and Shamsie corrects Winterson that we first meet her at her aunt’s kitchen. Jeannette continues to unravel the question of what we would do to save the one we love?

The conversation leaps from the novel to Kamila’s dual nationality as she holds a UK and Pakistani passport. Winterson notes Kamila’s failure at the Tebbit test (South Asians who are born in Britain and their lack of loyalty in supporting the British team and instead supporting their parent’s homeland team). When Shamsie wonders “why people seemed to think you have to have a monogamous relationship with the idea of home”, I feel a sense of pride and validation having an author like Kamila Shamsie speak and represent diasporic writers (like myself) who feel strongly about this sentiment. She concludes that both places are home in different ways.

Winterson addresses the audience for questions. One member of the audience asks Shamsie’s rationale for having twin characters in the novel. She responds that she wanted the characters to be very close and experience the same things at the same time informative moments in their lives. In particular, she wanted to highlight the first moment of loneliness experienced by twins when separated.

While waiting for the mic to reach the audience member, Winterson notes Shamsie “loves a good love story”, and the audiences laughs with Shamsie who replies, “it’s not so much that I like it, I just see it has a lot of dramatic potential!” The next question to follow concerned Kamila Shamsie’s relationship to place and does she feel loyalty, stability or a sense of jealousy with them. Shamsie responds with a comical anecdote that when she was introduced at a literature festival in Karachi, Pakistan, as one of Granta’s best young British writers, she told the audience she was still theirs. After the laughter dies down from the audience, Shamsie continues to describe the difficult relationship.

The last question of the night from the audience was imposed by Kamila Shamsie’s biggest fan, yours truly. I told Kamila when I conducted my dissertation upon her novels, when looking at secondary literary criticism she was always associated with “Muslim narratives”. I wanted to know how she felt when solely being recognised for her religious identity as opposed to her national identity. Initially being addressed as a south Asian writer made more sense to her as the cultural link was far greater regionally. Now, however, because of political discourse, Shamsie understands the term ‘Muslim’ has acquired more meaning. She ended her response with feeling fine with categories “as long as there are many of them.”

The event ended on a tone of great mirth and laughter as Jeanette pressed Kamila with the question ‘what three books would you recommend to someone being shipped off to a dessert Island, a terrible place?” Shamsie enquired further as to what the people were like, what the situation was and where they were going. Winterson denied stating the place was horrible but the audience confirmed she did in fact state it. As Winterson pressured Shamsie ‘Just pick one!” the audience roared with laughter at Jeanette’s defeated and exasperated tone. Shamsie decided upon her own novel Home Fire, and if it where me stranded on that dessert island, I’d consider myself lucky to read it.

Namra Amir

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